Earlier this week, Aaron Gordon, a writer for the excellent site The Classical (and a Sports On Earth contributor), went back into the depths of the NFL archive and uncovered a long-forgotten, deeply regrettable point in the league's history.
At one point in the televised life of the league, the main commentators on one of the league's primary corporate partners participated -- reveled -- in a segment in which severe injuries, potentially crippling ones, were not hidden from sight but in fact celebrated. The segments were simple: A defenseless, unaware player was left alone in the middle of the field, free to have another human, a massive one running at terrifying speeds, crash their skull into them as hard as they could. Usually, the player on the receiving end of the collision was knocked unconscious, or would walk around hobbled, confused, sometimes in a circle. Sometimes the defender would celebrate over the lifeless player's body, luxuriating in his kill, but sometimes he'd be wobbly too: Sometimes the hit took just as much out of him. It was the most brutal play in football -- the plays you watch now and cringe, the ones that make you, even when you're caught up in the excitement of the game, step back and re-evaluate, at least for a moment, what exactly it is that you're watching and why exactly you are doing so. Today, these plays are the NFL's shame; they are to be eliminated entirely, and on those rare occasions when they occur, they are treated with grave consequence, a rogue player turning himself into a weapon in defiance of the league's stated mandate, a sole assassin out solely for mercenary sadism. They are fined, suspended, ejected or all three, and treated as pariahs; The League is disgusted and appalled by this perversion of the great game. How could they? How could they?
But then, back in this long ago day, these hits weren't just celebrated: They were deified. There was a whole highlight segment which featured exclusively these plays: They called it JACKED UP. Every time one of these men would have their brain rattled around their skull for our entertainment, the commentators would yell JACKED UP!!!! It was sort of amazing: One of the main commentators, the generally respected Tom Jackson, was known mostly at the time for his calm, measured analysis, but when one of these segments popped up, he would lose it: He yelled JACKED UP louder than anyone. Sometimes they'd even freeze the video and put a target on one of the players' heads.
And here's the thing: This time in NFL history? This repulsive, dark era? This was only in 2006. This was only seven seasons ago.
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Another NFL season begins on Thursday night and, like most of you, I suspect, I cannot wait. I've finished all my fantasy drafts, filled out all my survivor pools, read all the preview magazines and cleared out my Sunday schedule so that I can bathe in the NFL all day. (I even sneaked in a couple of games of Madden.) Our own Mike Tanier has been my golden god for weeks: I am ready. I am not to be bothered on Thursday night: I will be on my couch yelling and hollering and feeling ecstatic that the game is back. I love football. It's extremely fun.
The NFL, in just about every way, is more powerful and successful than ever. The league brought in nearly $10 billion in revenue last year and there's a sense that it's still only scraping the surface of potential profit streams: Rumors of the NFL Sunday Ticket being available on YouTube, and what Google might pay for that (or Netflix, or any other cash-heavy upstart online subscription streaming service looking to make a huge splash), could start adding zeros to that number immediately. Everything in our media culture -- the way we watch, what advertisers pay for, what demographics are considered valuable -- has turned in the NFL's favor. Live event, un-DVRable programming, with a rabid, vast fanbase that will sit through (and even watch!) every commercial in real time … you just can't find that anymore. The television industry is in crisis, but the NFL, all by itself, is one of its main potential salvations. The NFL has never been more powerful. To many people, this power -- this Protect The Shield faux-militaristic corporatism -- is a large part of the league's appeal. The NFL's wealth and influence, that raw power, is thought, at this point, to be self-sustaining.
Even its troubles are being resolved, at least on a surface level. The class action lawsuit involving retired players and their lingering health issues, largely involving concussions, was settled last week for $765 million, a number that seems high but isn't. That's an amount paid out over 20 years, one that could be absorbed in one offseason with a Google deal, or one of the other countless revenue streams for the league. It is no longer hanging over the league's neck, this lawsuit, and the NFL can show the settlement to those who carp about the league's safety record and say, Look how much we care. No matter how fair or unfair you might find the settlement, that particular problem -- this particular lawsuit -- is taken care of.
All is well. The NFL is back. Everybody cheer. It will be like this forever.
But everything can change so fast. It was just seven years ago -- an embarrassingly short amount of time -- that the central moment of football that put the game in its most peril was being celebrated and glorified. It's barbaric to think of such a spectacle now. It's the opposite of how the game wants to display itself. But then: It was what they wanted. It was what we wanted.
What changed in that time was not the game. Sure, it's a little faster now, and potentially a little more violent: The players -- amazingly, it's a miracle of human biology and absolutely nothing else whatsoever! -- are bigger and stronger and quicker and everything that makes high-speed collisions between them that much more dangerous. But that's not enough to cause such a dramatic turnaround in how the game is presented.
What has changed is us. What has changed is the way we view the game: It's harder and harder to sit back and pretend that these are robots, that these are not men who have years taken off their lives as the hits pile up. We can still love the game, but there is a conflict, a little twinge that's growing tougher to ignore, that wasn't there before. It requires a bit of rationalization, a hey-this-is-just-entertainment, or hey-they-knew-the-rules-of-the-sport-when-they-started-playing, or hey-they-make-plenty-of-money that, whether you buy the logic or not, wasn't required of us seven years ago. We used to not have to think about it; now it's impossible not to.
I continue to believe there is nothing wrong with watching football. You can be a responsible, self-aware fan of the game, and hope it's made safer, or as safe as it can be made. You can enjoy the games while knowing of their perils, while knowing their inherent risks. There is nothing hypocritical about cheering and consuming this sport of huge men running into each other at high speeds for my amusement. I do believe this.
But I'm thinking about it now. I wasn't thinking about it seven years ago. The existential threat to football is not a lawsuit, or big hits, or targeting the head. It's that more and more fans think about it now. It doesn't mean we've stopped watching: The exact opposite, in fact. But you can't blindly cheer that huge JACKED UP hit anymore. You know what's behind it. You know what it might bring. The NFL has taken on all comers and defeated them all, and we'll gather on Thursday night and revel in the festivities like we always have. There's a little more to it now, though. It's a little more complicated.
That's just in seven years. What will the next seven years bring? This isn't going to become easier to figure out. The floodgates are open. When will I not be able to rationalize anymore? When will this start to make a dent? As a fan of the games and the sport, I sorta hope never. But I might just be rationalizing that too.
Am I ready for some football? Yeah, I am. I think I am. I hope I am.
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